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Can Finland Become a Member of NATO?

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The Russian occupation of Crimea in 2014 and Ukraine in 2022 has led to serious disquiet in the Baltic region. Without a doubt, Sweden, and Finland, which are not members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have worried due to the military operations of Russia.  The increase in military activities in the Baltic Sea also creates a fragile situation for Finland’s security.

With the effect of recent developments, Finland is calculating the advantageous and disadvantageous return of NATO membership and currently waiting for the “right time” to apply for accession. However, this right time can take months or even years in the short term. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, NATO membership has added to the agenda in both Finnish politics and the public. In the wake of this, the President and Prime Minister of Finland have almost declared that it is not easy to become a member of NATO by their statements.

Western defence alliance has gained more importance as the European Union (EU) has proven to be a ‘paper tiger’ in the military field. The majority of Finnish people have been against membership up to the present, but Russia’s occupation of Crimea and then Ukraine has engendered a significant increase in the proportion of people who confirm NATO membership in public opinion. Recent opinion polls also indicate that support for NATO membership has exceeded 50% for the first time.

Russian moves have extra-ordinarily caused the concern of Sweden and Finland which are not part of NATO. This brings the necessity of major fund allocation of the defence industry, and corporate jointly with NATO. To give an instance, Sweden has signed a defence pact with NATO’s founding members Norway and Denmark, and these countries examined their defence expenditures.

Finland which shares a long border with Russia has achieved the preservation of its neutrality and its “distant” policies during the Cold War for the sake of its independence. Together with recent developments, the reorientation of Finland’s policy is seen.  If Russia enhances its provocations, it has been openly declared that Finland and Sweden, which have adopted the tradition of neutrality, may have to hide behind NATO.

In fact, an outcome of the Soviet-Finnish War of 1939-1940 may also be seen in the Ukrainian War. Finland had failed to win the Winter War, after months of fierce resistance, it had managed to sign a peace treaty in March 1940 that ended the occupation and saved Finland’s defence and independence. Despite some compromises, Finland was able to maintain its independence. Ukraine’s “Finnishization” (or Finlandization) seems to be among the options with a “Pyrus Victory” (with the approval of the USA and EU) to be gained by Russia.

Sweden and Finland have several options for NATO membership:

  • The first is that both countries Sweden and Finland are members of NATO. But a possible attack by Russia seriously worries Finland. Russia has a border of 1340 kilometers with Finland, and at the same time, 1.6% of the population of Finland is Russian. Moreover, Finland’s energy dependence on Russia requires a rake through of relations.
  • The second and stronger option is for Sweden and Finland to obtain Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA) status with the United States of America (USA). Countries with this status benefit in the fields of defence, trade, and security cooperation. NATO had previously granted this status to 17 countries.
  • As a third option, Sweden and Finland can be envisaged to maintain the current situation in order not to attract the reaction of Russia. Although this option seems unlikely at present, it will remain an important option in a historical context
  • The fourth and weakest option is, for Sweden or Finland to join NATO separately. The sanctions of both the USA and the EU against Russia force both countries to participate in these sanctions. Sweden and Finland are pursuing a joint decision by acting jointly due to avoid losing their privileged partnership with NATO

What Will Russia’s Response?

Although Russia’s aggressive attitude has brought Sweden and Finland closer to NATO, Russia has made it clear that it will not leave a possible membership unanswered. Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mariya Zakharova, after the US State Department’s statement that “the doors are open to Sweden and Finland if they want to join NATO,” said: “The participation of Finland and Sweden in NATO, which is primarily a military bloc, will require a serious response from our country. It will lead to political-military consequences”. Shortly after the announcement, Russian warplanes also violated Swedish airspace.

Russia had previously announced at the highest level that it would not easily accept the possible membership of both countries in NATO. Russian President Vladimir Putin, during his visit to Finland in July 2016, “How would you welcome Finland if it becomes a member of NATO?” “What do you think we will do? We withdrew our soldiers from the 1500 km border. Do we hold them back?” had given the answer. Moreover, he also expressed their satisfaction with Finland’s neutrality. However, in the face of Russia’s moves toward Ukraine after Crimea, Finland changed its policy and began to focus more on NATO membership.

Russia’s invasion of Crimea and Ukraine pushes Finland and Sweden to further deepen their relations with NATO. This situation makes the membership or partnership status even more controversial. Finland and Sweden want to grab a place from the table in order to not be on the menu due to the fear of the Russians, but they are currently trying to calculate the price. “Finland paid a great price by not fulfilling Stalin’s wishes in the Second World War, but will it now be a member of NATO despite Putin? Are they ready to pay the price if they become a member?” questions will continue to remain enigmatic.

On the other side, Putin’s vague, incomprehensible, and unpredictable policies keep Sweden and Finland on a knife-edge. This will ensure that NATO membership remains on the agenda. Russian occupation of Crimea and Ukraine; forces these two non-NATO Nordic countries to act together and jointly. Joining or not joining NATO together or individually by both states will have different results. In fact, NATO wants to make both states members at the same time. Because the strategic location of Sweden and Finland gains great importance to further support and surround the defence of the Baltic states.

In other respects, Russia tries to prevent Finland and/or Sweden from joining the Alliance through intimidation rather than giving assurances. Finland uses and will continue to use the possibility of applying for NATO membership as a threat in response to the insecure environment created by its neighbor, whose behavior cannot be foreseen. In doing so, Washington will try to strike a balance between Stockholm, Brussels, and Moscow. Given the historical process, Finland will maintain its policy of remaining militarily neutral but will deepen its relations with NATO and maintain the policy of keeping the option to apply for membership open.

Doç. Dr. Evren KÜÇÜK
Doç. Dr. Evren KÜÇÜK
Küçük, Kastamonu Üniversitesi Uluslararası İlişkiler Bölümünde öğretim üyesidir. Lisans eğitimini Atatürk Üniversitesi Edebiyat Fakültesi Tarih Bölümünde tamamlayan Küçük, 2011 yılında “Türkiye-Finlandiya İlişkileri (1917-1980)” başlıklı tezle aynı üniversiteden yüksek lisans derecesini, 2016’da tamamladığı “Türkiye-İsveç İlişkileri (1914-1938)” başlıklı tezle de Ankara Üniversitesi’nden doktora derecesini almıştır. 2016’da Kastamonu Üniversitesi İİBF Uluslararası İlişkiler Bölümüne öğretim üyesi olarak atanan Küçük’ün Nordik ülkeleri, Baltıklar ve Türk dış politikasına ilişkin yayımlanmış çalışmaları bulunmaktadır. Yazar, “Savaşta Diplomasi: Adana-Yenice Gizli Görüşmeleri” adlı eseri ile 2020 TÜBA-TESEP Eser Ödülüne layık görülmüştür.